Martha Dicks Stevens: Engineer and Pioneer
Purdue's first female engineering graduate
The Purdue Women in Engineering Program celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019, but its origins date back more than 120 years to Martha Dicks Stevens.
Stevens was the University’s first female engineering graduate, earning her civil engineering degree in 1897. Her landmark achievement blazed a trail for female engineers at Purdue and around the country at a time when the women’s suffrage movement was treading water. American women didn’t get the right to vote until 1920.
Stevens, who also earned a bachelor’s and a master’s in the College of Science, was an ambitious student who served as president of the Purdue Photographic Club and as vice president of the University’s Philalethean Literary Society.
The University’s Lyles School of Civil Engineering celebrated the 120th anniversary of Stevens’ graduation with a yearlong celebration in 2016-17. Among the featured events were Civil Engineering Milestones Lecture appearances by Martha Rees (BSCE ’73) of DuPont USA and Doreen Mitchell (BSCE ’81) of the Walt Disney World Co.
Beth Holloway is assistant dean for diversity and engagement and the Leah H. Jamieson Director of Women in Engineering at Purdue. She sees Stevens as a true pioneer.
"When Martha Dicks Stevens earned her engineering degree at Purdue, she proved that Purdue engineering wasn't just for men," Holloway says. "Purdue's rich history with regard to welcoming and educating women in engineering started with Stevens and her accomplishments. She inspired countless other women to follow in her footsteps – at first slowly, and then by giant leaps."
Stevens’ impact on Purdue engineering, Holloway says, was both immediate and enduring. This included the accomplishments of Lillian Gilbreth, who became the first female engineering professor in the United States when she earned an appointment in Purdue’s College of Engineering in 1935.
“The atmosphere at Purdue, and the vision of its leaders at the time, created an opportunity for Lillian Gilbreth to become the first female engineering professor,” Holloway says. “Following that, progress continued with the founding of the oldest continuously chartered student section of the Society of Women Engineers in 1954, and then the creation of the first Women in Engineering Program in the country in 1969. Today, almost 125 years after Martha’s graduation, there are over 3,300 women studying engineering on Purdue’s campus. It all started with her.”